What Went Wrong with Kemalism?
The contradictions of Kemalism arose when the Kemalists realized that the transition from sultanate to national sovereignty could not be achieved through a gradual process or by seeking the consent of the people as suggested by the principle of populism, but through the change from above. Charismatic leadership was the only way to establish a functioning link with the people which vanished when Atatürk died in 1938. In order to win back the support of the masses, Kemalists should retreat back to their origins placing greater emphasis on ‘the people’ rather than the ‘the establishment’.
Kemalism was more than a reform movement and represented a comprehensive break from the Ottoman past. Political movements in the late Ottoman Empire, including Turkism, Westernism, and Islamism had struggled to revive the constitutional monarchy whereas Kemalism offered a new source of sovereignty for the establishment of an independent state, namely, the nation, or the people (halk). No other movement or ideology born within the Empire but Kemalism was radical enough to propose a complete rupture from the two pillars of the Ottoman state, -i.e. the sultanate and the caliphate, by its reliance on the Turkish people as the ultimate source of its legitimacy. However, this reference to the principle of populism (halkçılık), would at the same time constitute the major fault line of the Kemalist ideology, and continue to be the major contradiction of Kemalism even in present-day Turkey.
The contradiction arose when the Kemalists realized that the transition from sultanate to national sovereignty could not be achieved through a gradual process or by seeking the consent of the people. They therefore did not rely on the consent of the people as suggested by the principle of populism, but imposed the change from above. Rather than popular will, this transition required a revolutionary process in which an enlightened élite would lead the people, as described in the Kemalist principle of revolutionism (devrimcilik). This contradiction between populism and revolutionism gave rise to the emergence of the strong centralized state structure alienated from society. The gap between state and society seems to be the key to understanding what went wrong with Kemalist ideology in Turkey.
The primary factor breaching the gap between state and society has been the charismatic leadership of Kemal Atatürk, which, in the eyes of the people throughout the national struggle, was similar to the Mahdi, the Savior, in Turkish-Islamic tradition. In this tradition, the scene becomes ready at times of crises such as war, disease, drought, or famine for the rise of men, who would announce that the end of the world was imminent. Only the Mahdi could save them from facing this end. For example, in his novel Iron Earth Copper Sky, the well-known Turkish novelist Yaşar Kemal tells how his fellow villagers turned an ordinary villager into a savior after a period of drought. In a similar fashion, the masses in Turkey welcomed the military junta in 1980 to play the role of Mahdi after a period of anarchy, chaos and state failure in the second half of the seventies.
Similarly, during the period of national struggle, famine, death, disease and war throughout Anatolia ripened conditions for the emergence of a charismatic leader. The Ghaza culture, which refers to the struggle of Muslims to defend the land of Islam in Turkish-Islamic tradition, also contributed to this process. Eventually, Kemal Atatürk became the Ghazi, the miraculous Savior of the country when the nationalists defeated the occupying forces. Thanks to Atatürk’s charisma, the Kemalist regime could adopt a revolutionary strategy and abolish the sultanate and the caliphate, the most sacred institutions of the Ottoman polity, without much resistance from the people. In the same way, his charisma was the vehicle by which other modernizing reforms were diffused and came to be accepted in the society with great speed. In today’s Turkey, Kemalists still rely on this charisma and thereby find a resolution for the conflict between the imperatives of populism and revolutionism.
Another means by which the gap between state and society could be bridged was through legislation, which included not only the legislative body but also the RPP, the single party. The Grand National Assembly of Turkey (TGNA) was supposed to play a role both in the manifestation of the popular will and national sovereignty, and in introducing the reforms that would change the society. It was, therefore, one of the main power centers where the contradiction between populism and revolutionism could be resolved. However, the Assembly proved to be inefficient in legislating laws unless they were backed by Atatürk. Often legislation proposed in the Assembly met opposition within the Assembly itself. As a result, the revolutionary laws were either rejected or not enforced. The problem was mostly stemmed from the structure of the RPP. The party was supposed to be composed of the enlightened élite of Turkey in line with the principle of Revolutionism. However, upper classes had greater chances of benefitting from education, and thereby acquired and even monopolized membership in the political élite. Class affiliations rather than education became the determinant of party membership. Even the People’s Houses, which were established to disseminate the Kemalist ideology among the masses and to establish a link between the party and the people, grew distant from almost all layers of the society except the urban educated elite.
Charismatic leadership as the only way to establish a functioning link with the people vanished when Atatürk died in 1938. The cleavage between the state/party and the people became even deeper, and the various factions within the party began to give priority to their own class, group and personal interests. The party became alienated from the people, especially from the lowest layers of society. Except for a Peronist period in the seventies under the leftist party program of Bülent Ecevit, the RPP failed to reach a compromise between populism and revolutionism and the gap between the party and the society remained. This became the main fault line in the Kemalist ideology, which has been abused by conservative religious political movements appealing to the masses with a more populist discourse. Although the party made a leap forward under its new leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, it still remains behind. In order to win back the support of the masses, Kemalists should retreat back to their origins placing greater emphasis on ‘the people’ rather than the ‘the establishment’. We shall see whether Kemalism can make a return through a populist strategy or continue to suffer from republican elitism.
Dr. Şakir Dinçşahin
Please cite this article as follows:
Dinçşahin, Şakir (April, 2012), “What Went Wrong with Kemalism?”, Vol. I, Issue 2, pp.17-18, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London: ResearchTurkey (http://researchturkey.org/p=576)
 Berkes, N. The Transformation of the Kemalist Regime, Regional Studies No. 201, Harvard University Center for Middle Eastern Studies, (December 1969), 9.
 Ibid., 17-22.
 Ibid., 20-21.
 Ibid., 31-2.